The page above is from a 1910 Church of England Book of Common Prayer I have on my bookshelf. It is texts such as these that frighten me. Viewed as a mere anachronism, it may provide entertainment for the sneering atheist. It might add to the agnostic’s disquiet, and it may provide a kind of self-satisfied affirmation for the ‘redeemed’ who have apparently escaped perdition. But I find myself with a visceral horror contemplating a god who sends Pestilence upon those who do not conform to his will.
How does one love a fierce and vengeful god? A capricious god who seems so terribly absent from the modern world and yet who, in the distant past, intervened in the minutiae of the lives of the ancient Israelites?
A God with an eye on transgression, a stickler for moral details, who commanded his Destroying Angel. A god who sent Plague.
Yet paradoxically this text is also about God’s mercy.
The juxtaposition of opposites: a god of contradictions.
“O ALMIGHTY” is typeset in angry capital letters; the drop cap is a wide open mouth of rebuke or a scream of fear. A devouring abyss. The open mouth of a skull, perhaps the cry of a victim of pestilence. Will this Almighty swallow me up and spit me out?
How can one love this God?
What decision – for or against him – can ever be morally free in view of the threat of eternal torment? (In this regard the theology of early Judaism with it’s doctrine of Sheol שְׁאוֹל the dark abode of both the righteous and unrighteous dead or rephaim, is less terrifying than the fully developed, demon-filled, satan-administered, Dantesque hell of Christianity).
How free is my choice when He will send me to hell for eternity if I do not choose Him? In this picture, God holds all the cards. He may save me, or he may destroy me. Where is the good news in all of this? The word Gospel is derived from the Greek euaggélion, “God’s good news”.
Perhaps I may be accused of making a straw man argument: The Bible is full of scriptures of loving-kindness. Christian teachers are well able to explain the reasons for the differences and similarities between the God of the Old and the God of the New covenant. Jack Miles, in his book “Jesus: A crisis in the life of God” provides, albeit in a literary form, the most convincing explanation for God’s ambiguities; but most conservative evangelicals – and perhaps Christians in general – would reject his conception of God as unbiblical (even when he is looking at God as a character in literature rather than theology). An article on the Patheos site even goes so far as to say that his God is not the Christian God – so once again we have the thousand-faced God of Christianity, each sect or denomination disavowing the rest while claiming its own view as the single truth.
And I imagine Jesus sighing too. I imagine that enigmatic rabbi from hot, dusty Nazareth: the friend of sinners – prostitutes, the petty tax officials collaborating with pagan Rome, adulterers, thieves, demoniacs and the insane, enemy soldiers, publicans, heretics and the diseased, the blind, the deformed, the thirsty, hungry, the spiritually desolate and outcasts. He would have had much to sigh about. Whoever He was, He left no journal, no thoughts hastily written down on the night of his arrest in Gethsemane; no autobiographical sketches from his days as a carpenter or reflections on his childhood. He left no theological treatise or so much as a humble tract: he was the Living Word of God. His story has been so embellished in the two millenia since his death that even the theologians seeking the historical christ find only a faint glimpse of him beneath the layers of myth, interpolation and redaction.
To the Jews, the people of the Hebrew scriptures or Tanakh, he was a heretic and blasphemer.
So was he a blasphemer? A charlatan? An apocalyptic prophet? Or a gentle healer, wondering sage, a rebellious rabbi in an age of syncretism and eclectic religious beliefs. Was he ultimately self-deluded, or was Jesus a mythical synthesis of pre-Christian, pagan beliefs in dying and rising god’s? (For that matter, was Saul of Tarsus himself a pretender, a hellenized heretic? Many of his claims to religious ‘pedigree’ have been questioned not by malicious opponents of Christianity bit by Jewish scholars of integrity. See http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13232-saul-of-tarsus)
Was Jesus God incarnate? “A Prophet against the Covenant?”
The Man of Sorrows who takes upon himself the sin of the world and who bears the wrath of God: this is the only acceptable reposte I can conceive of, to a God of Judgement. This is the Jesus of “Christ: a crisis in the life of God” who – as God incarnate –bears humanity’s anger against God (himself) in a self reflexive gesture; but this appears to be an unorthodox proposition. To think of Jesus Christ only as the suffering messiah turning the other cheek and forgiving his enemies is to ignore a much broader and dare I say more complex picture of him in Christianity. Therefrigerator is also the stern face of the Byzantine Christ Pantocrator who stares at us, demanding our attention; and the Christ of the Reformers and Calvinists was as terrifying as any old Testament deity.
Mystery within mystery.
A note on Christ Pantocrator:
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek as the Septuagint, Pantokrator was used both for YHWH Sabaoth “Lord of Hosts” and for El Shaddai “God Almighty”. In the New Testament, Pantokrator is used once by Paul(2 Cor 6:18). Aside from that one occurrence, John the Revelator is the only New Testament author to use the word Pantokrator. The author of the Book of Revelation uses the word nine times, and while the references to God and Christ in Revelation are at times interchangeable, Pantokrator appears to be reserved for God The most common translation of Pantocratoris “Almighty” or “All-powerful”. In this understanding, Pantokrator is a compound word formed from the Greek words πᾶς, pas(GEN παντός pantos), i.e. “all, and κράτος,kratos, i.e. “strength”, “might”, “power”. This is often understood in terms of potential power; i.e., ability to do anything, omnipotence.
Another, more literal translation is “Ruler of All” or, less literally, “Sustainer of the World”. In this understanding, Pantokrator is a compound word formed from the Greek for “all” and the verb meaning “To accomplish something” or “to sustain something” (κρατεῖν). This translation speaks more to God’s actual power; i.e., God does everything (as opposed to God can do everything). WIKIPEDIA